A few weeks ago, my nephew messaged me to say that he had suffered a knee injury while playing football and that he is unable to play for at least six weeks.
Naturally, I did my best to support him: “Why don’t you just play more football? That would help. People have had worse injuries.”
He said that he could hardly move and was in pain when walking even the shortest distances, adding that it wasn’t as though he chose to get injured – it just happened. Apparently he had to go to the hospital and after checking him over, the doctors gave him walking aids to assist him and advised that he rest as much as possible over the next six weeks.
That’s the trouble with young people today. They’re so fragile that they whimper every time they damage a knee or break a bone. They should be grateful – some people are missing limbs, and you don’t hear them complaining....
Of course, I said nothing of the sort to my nephew.
I was as sympathetic and supportive as I could be. Thankfully, I’ve never had a severe injury playing sports but I can imagine that it’s extremely unpleasant – especially when it stops you from living life in a way you enjoy. I would understand if you initially thought me to be a terrible uncle, responding to my nephew’s suffering in such a dismissive manner. When anyone is suffering, it’s important to be sensitive to their pain and offer them whatever support we can.
And yet, when it comes to people suffering mental ill-health, we can see that dismissive attitude play out. Much of the time, unhelpful responses are unintentional. People mean well for the most part; however, in some cases, the dismissive attitude is, sadly, deliberate.
This is partly due to ignorance from our own lived experience. If you’ve never had depression, it’s difficult to understand why you can deal with life’s challenges and setbacks quite well while others struggle and feel helpless in their situation.
We might also find ourselves in the presence of people who have anxiety or trauma but who appear to be absolutely fine. In fact, what they’re doing is trying their best to keep themselves together to avoid making others feel uncomfortable.
If someone injures themselves or has some other physical ailment, no one blinks an eye. Of course the person needs help, to be treated, supported and cared for – whatever helps them get back on their feet. And sometimes, it takes a while for a person to recover and we can accept that as a natural part of the process. The same can be said of those who struggle at times with their mental health.
When people struggle with depression, anxiety, trauma and other mental health issues, it’s not a choice. If we’ve never struggled with our own mental health, it doesn’t mean we’re impervious to struggles in the future; it simply means that, for now, we’ve been more fortunate than others.
It can be difficult to know how to support people who struggle with their mental health, and in our efforts to try, it’s understandable that our go to response is to do anything that will make the problem go away as quickly as possible.
To sit with someone who feels depressed or worthless, or in the aftermath of a trauma, can be a daunting experience that can leave us feeling pretty helpless ourselves. That said, just by being present and allowing the person the space to process what’s going on inside them is a great way to offer our support.
By asking someone how they feel, or letting them know that we’re there whenever they feel like sharing, we send them a message that support is available to them when they need it, and that they matter enough to be given the time and space to share whenever they’re ready.
While it’s tempting to offer advice and suggestions, when someone does take up the invitation to reach out, we should never underestimate the power of presence. Every day we talk to people, solve problems, and generally fill up uncomfortable moments of silence with noise. As a result, we fail to see what most of us miss out on: a space to express what’s inside us without someone rushing to fix the problem. Imagine what it feels like to talk about what’s on your mind and have someone simply be there, listening without judgement and offering the kind of support you need.
We naturally provide the right kind of support to people when they go experience physical ill-health; it’d go a long way to help so many (ourselves included) if we could see and treat psychological and emotional struggles in the same way. At some points in our lives, we’ll all struggle with mental health issues. Not only are they common, they’re also a natural part of being human. Let’s strive to offer the same support and understanding to others as we’d hope to receive ourselves.
Sunny Side Up columnist Sandy Clarke has long held an interest in emotions, mental health, mindfulness and meditation. He believes the more we understand ourselves and each other, the better societies we can create. If you have any questions or comments, email email@example.com. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.
Are you suffering from mental health issues or contemplating suicide? Contact the Befrienders service nearest to you. For a full list of numbers and operating hours, go to befrienders.org.my/centre-in-malaysia.